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The Concept Politeness in the Cross -cultural Communication Qualitative Research Essay


In the contemporarily civilized society, politeness defines the integral aspect of interactive communication to positively facilitate life effectiveness and promote social life interaction. Since the world consist of many cultures, a universal definition of the term politeness is not possible since it depends on the communicative dialects and symbols employed by each culture.

As a matter of fact, one culture’s definition of politeness may be opposite of another culture’s definition especially when the interactive symbols display contextual misunderstanding. Therefore, the issue of misunderstanding between two cultures is what inspired great scholars like Levinson and Brown to come up with theoretical explanation on the concept of politeness and its application at global level.

However, these theories have received serious criticism from other scholars because there is no universally accepted definition of the concept politeness. In discussing politeness notion, this reflective treatise attempts to examine the cross cultural pragmatics surrounding the definition and application of politeness as presented by Tennen, Thomas, and Wierzbicka.

This analysis aims at providing an informed and comprehensive understanding of politeness appropriation alongside emerging difficulties associated with misunderstandings across different cultures.

Levinson and Brown’s theory on politeness was introduced in 1978. This theory holds that politeness has three quantifiable human interaction elements which are basic across different culture.

Levinson and Brown (1987) propose these elements to include personal face maintenance in a communicative process, facial expression or acts which may directly play out to intimidate facial expression of the parties in a conversation, and strategies associated with politeness and meant to maintain a friendly face in a conversation.

In their explanation, Levinson and Brown define the concept of ‘face’ as that aspect which outlines the desire to avoid humiliation or embarrassment while at the same time maintaining and controlling a desired self representation (Levinson and Brown, 1987, p.32).

The politeness phenomena theory dwells on aspects of negative and positive senses in linguistic pragmatism. Reflectively, the negative sense is a direct reflection of independence from undesired imposition. On the other hand, a positive sense or face reflects on individual self image and desired imposition.

According to the phenomena theory put forward by Levinson and Brown, there are four categories of linguistics politeness. These include the social norm view, the facial saving view, the convectional maxim view, and the convectional contract view.

Generally, linguistics politeness depends on the background of an encoder and decodes noting that different cultures have different voice tone and meaning for each tone (Levinson and Brown, 1987, p.39).

Application of linguistics and expression of politeness is heavily dependent on cross cultural communication (Tannen, 1992, p.14). As a matter of fact, heterogeneity of societies plays a significant role in understanding perceived and actual politeness in expression.

Tannen (1984) assets that expectations against habits acquired over a long period of time controls the semantic process rather than perception on the side of an encoder or decoder. Thus, politeness in this case has direct relationship to communication level, intonation, listenership, and understandable ‘formulaicity’.

Tennen describes eight levels of linguistics politeness as being in a position to decipher “when to talk; what to say; pacing and pausing; listenership; intonation and prosody; formulaicity; indirectness; and cohesion and coherence” (Tennen, 1984, p. 194).

Politeness in linguistics can also be achieved through pragmatic competence as described by Thomas Jenny in the article Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure. With proper formulation, it is a service to a decoder and encoder to understand and appreciate cultural difference in communication when pragmatic competence is activated.

Thomas adds that “scales of politeness and indicators of use such as ‘vulgar’, ‘formal’, or ‘rare’ are all relative and can serve as only the most general guide to appropriateness. It would be of far greater benefit to the learner if teachers attempted to make explicit the types of choices which underlie pragmatic decision-making (Thomas, 1983, p.78).

Basically, this view opine that pragmatic competence is achievable when parties involved in communication process appreciate deep rooted cultural symbolism for expression of joy, fear, sadness, and dissatisfaction to minimize misunderstanding.

Therefore, the aspects of status, age, sex, roles, authority, and functions determine success and perception on politeness in expression as a faction of appropriateness and pragmatic linguistic choice (Thomas, 1995, p.43).

Cultural values and conventional strategies facilitate creation of an imperative environment for interactive communication despite differences in idiomatic variation and tonal insight. Hence, “competence can be made to appear a free act rather than obeying command” (Wierzbicka, 1985, p.173).

It is important to study the aspects of logics, prospects, natural, and normal in use of linguistics especially when either of the parties involved in an interactive process have a second language besides the one in use. “Cultural clashes of this kind cannot be completely eliminated, but can be minimized through enlightenment and well-planned multicultural educational approach” (Wierzbicka, 1985, p.176).

To embrace cultural specific dialect in expression, that is considered polite and within the domains of linguistics, it is vital to factor in aspects of cultural differences, tonal variation, variances in symbolic interaction, and competence level in use of a language.

Reference List

Levinson, S $ Brown, P 1987, Politeness: some universals in language usage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Tannen, D 1984, “The pragmatics of cross-cultural communication”, Applied Linguistics, vol. 5, pp.189-195.

Tannen, D 1992, That’s not what I meant! Virago, London.

Thomas, J 1983, Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure, Longman, London.

Thomas, J 1995, Meaning in interaction: An introduction to pragmatics, Longman, London.

Wierzbicka, A 1985, Different Cultures, “Different Languages, Different Speech Acts”, Journal of Pragmatics, no. 9, pp. 145-178.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The Concept Politeness in the Cross -cultural Communication." August 20, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cross-cultural-communication-5/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Concept Politeness in the Cross -cultural Communication'. 20 August.

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